Trope Workshop:Pentagon Prices

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The now-legendary tendency of the American military -- usually personified as The Pentagon -- to pay outrageously inflated prices for things that would be inexpensive for the average consumer, on the grounds that they were being provided by "the lowest bidder" and thus no cheaper price was available. As Christopher Cerf and Henry Beard put it in the subtitle for their book The Pentagon Catalog, they are "ordinary products at extraordinary prices".

This is unfortunately Truth in Television, and was first brought to wide notice during the Defense Department procurement scandals of the 1980s when the government's own Project On Government Oversight revealed that the Pentagon routinely spent bought screws for US$37 each, hammers for $400, toilet seats for $640, coffeemakers for over $7500 and aluminum ladders for nearly $75,000(!), among other over-the-top prices. (And it didn't go away just because the government investigated it -- as recently as July 2018, senators were demanding to know why the Pentagon spent $10,000 on a toilet seat cover that could be 3D-printed for $300.) For extra comic value, the price increase was often supported by a corresponding increase in the complexity of the item description -- it wasn't a "hammer" you were buying for your $400, but a "manually-operated impact-driven friction-fastener application system".[1]

Naturally, this lends itself well to satire even now, over thirty years later. In any military-flavored comedy, you can expect to see some reference to the scandals presented as a joke. And even outside of works with a military theme, one can come across examples wherein the Pentagon's spendthrift ways are used for hyperbolic comparisons of frugality.

Examples of Pentagon Prices include:

Advertising[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Just before the first IKEA stores opened in the U.S., IKEA staged a teaser advertising blitz on roadside billboards. One billboard sported the tagline "More economical than this" above a picture of a wrench on which were stamped the words, "PROPERTY OF THE PENTAGON".

Literature[edit | hide]

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • One episode of ALF had the titular alien hold a garage sale where he tried to sell household items at ridiculously-inflated prices (a $600 screwdriver, for example). The only person interested in buying anything was an Army general.

Music[edit | hide]

  • Tom Paxton's 1986 song "Sold a Hammer To The Pentagon", from his album One Million Lawyers and Other Disasters, explains how you can take take advantage of the Pentagon's buying patterns to enrich yourself:

Sold a hammer to the Pentagon
To the Bing Bang to the Pentagon
And I'm living in Florida for they made me a millionaire
They gave me 700 for every silly little hammer
For I sold them to the Pentagon and they made me a millionaire
So you sell them nails
To the Bing Bang to the Pentagon
Yes you sell them nails and they'll make you a millionaire

Oral Tradition, Myths and Legends[edit | hide]

Other Media[edit | hide]

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • This is a trope born from real life. Here are a couple news stories from the mid-1980s when this first came to the attention of the general public:
  • See also the July 2018 story linked in the main text.
  1. Later investigations by a presidential commission established for that purpose revealed that at least some of the excessive prices were illusory, caused by poor accounting practices that improperly averaged other costs into and over the items purchased; and some were the result of actual custom manufacture of small quantities to MIL-SPEC requirements. But there have been (far, far too many) genuine cases of fraud and mismanagement (caused by there being "no rational system" governing defense procurement) resulting in inexpensive supplies being sold to the military for exorbitant rates. (As, indeed, profiteers have done for centuries if not millennia.)